City Council: The Race Is On

Previewing November's elections for Districts 1, 3, 8, and 9

Photos by John Anderson and Jana Birchum

City Council's 10-1 format is now into its fourth year, meaning it's graduated from the toddler stage and into early childhood. Already we're seeing some telltale signs of slowed development: Council still has trouble sharing and making compromises, and are occasionally prone to temper tantrums (particularly when they've had too long of a day). Yet every day presents a new opportunity for the body to grow up.

November’s election presents an opportunity to recalibrate the Council and infuse it with some new blood.

November's election represents voters' next opportunity to recalibrate the Council and infuse it with some new blood. There are six seats up for grabs this year: Districts 1, 3, 5, 8, and 9, and the mayor. And while D5 CM Ann Kitchen is currently unopposed, challengers have lined up to run against each of the remaining incumbents – except for in D1, where Ora Houston announced last week that she wouldn't seek another term.

Below, we preview the field for the four Council races that have drawn a set of challengers. And come back on July 6 for Michael King's spotlight on the mayoral race. Candidate filing opens on July 23 and runs through Aug. 20, and early voting for the Nov. 6 elections begins on Oct. 22.

Get to know your Council candidates, and cherish your time with them through these long summer months. They might be gone before you know it. – Chase Hoffberger

Lewis Conway Jr.

District 1: The Open Field

Earlier this month it looked like the race for D1 would be between one well-established incumbent and a handful of upstarts hoping to bring some change. But Ora Hous­ton blew that narrative down last Wednesday when she announced that she would not seek re-election. After "months of personal discernment and conversations with confidants," Houston decided to retire. She plans to carry out her term and "continue to represent all constituents with integrity, vigor and compassion."

Mariana Salazar

Natasha Harper-Madison

Houston's news came as a shock to the pool of candidates, all of whom had been on-hand two Saturdays ago at Houston's State of Dis­trict 1 address at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, where she emphasized the period of transition the Eastside district is currently going through and graded her performance on Council a B+ (both adorable and quite generous). Houston spent that day graciously introducing the three candidates who'd announced plans to challenge her to that point: Grassroots Lead­ership activist Lewis Conway Jr., Mari­ana Salazar from the Ending Community Home­lessness Coalition, and East Austin Advocates founder Natasha Harper-Madison. Houston also introduced former Travis County Demo­cratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, who announced his campaign moments after Houston announced her eventual departure.

Vincent Harding

Harding became the front-runner as soon as he announced, carrying the endorsements of a number of influential locals including NAACP President Nelson Linder, Volma Over­ton Jr., and former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco. Harding, who earns his living as an employment and ethics attorney, is staking his campaign on his experience at City Hall, which includes time spent on the Board of Adjustment, one of the wonkier boards and commissions. For Harding, who ruffled feathers with his leadership style at the TCDP ("Party of Some," June 15), the question will be whether he's learned enough from that experience to successfully represent D1.

Harding's competition can't boast that sort of organizational experience, although Harper-Madison has an entrepreneurial background: In addition to her role with East Austin Advo­cates, she's president of the East 12th Street Merchants Association, and has used that work to establish herself as somewhat of a "community quarterback," connecting residents to city resources. Conway Jr.'s "we not me" approach to politics should play well with longtime East Austinites, but it's still unclear if he'll actually be able to run. In the Nineties he served eight years of a 20-year prison sentence for manslaughter, and now advocates for the formerly incarcerated. And while he's yet to officially file, a city memo outlining preliminary research by the city clerk indicates that state law may bar anyone with a felony conviction "from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities" of their sentence from running for public office ("Lewis Conway Jr. Faces Long Odds for Council Candidacy," Dec. 15, 2017).

The outlier in the group is Salazar, who carries a strong narrative as a community organizer in her native Venezuela, before moving to the U.S. in 1999, and settling in Austin 10 years ago. Salazar emphasizes the coalition-building she has learned as a member of ECHO, which she believes will be instrumental to driving change in the community – though she'll face an undeniably tough challenge as a Latina vying to represent the African-American opportunity district. But her candidacy does point toward the growing Hispanic/Latino population in D1, which hit 43% in 2010 and is expected to rise as we approach the 2020 census. Just a decade before, African-Americans were the highest represented demographic in the district, at 39%. – Nina Hernandez

Jessica Cohen

District 3: Density in the District

Affordability is on the mind of every D3 candidate. The district covers a broad swath of Central East Austin and crosses south over the river, encompassing one of the most coveted and recently gentrified areas in the U.S. And Austin's continued growth ensures that that won't be changing soon. As sitting Council Member Pio Renteria is known to say, "now the gentrifiers are being gentrified."

James Valadez

Renteria kicked off his re-election campaign in March, to oversee the completion of several income-restricted housing projects currently in the works, including the multifamily development at Chalmers Courts, which could take three years to finish. The Austin native has been an advocate of affordable housing for years, and today that has led him toward supporting the ongoing effort to rewrite the land use code. "I'm promoting density in the urban core because that's the only way we're going to get affordable housing," he says.

But to his opponents, that's debatable. 46-year-old network security administrator and former EMT Jessica Cohen called the rewrite "garbage" and accused it of protecting wealthy neighborhoods. Cohen believes Aus­tin can make itself more affordable by challenging state laws like the recapture tax and its ban on rent control. She argued Council has to "fight the state" and create "our own progressive ideas" to slow displacement on the Eastside. She expects Texas will sue the city if it attempts to challenge state laws, but called that a "stopgap measure." Her EMT experience, where "you fix the worst part first," prepared her for the battle. "While the state is suing us, you're making something different" to sustain the change. "It can be done, it's just going to take a lot of persistence."

Cohen is one of two out transgender women running for City Council this year, along with D9's Danielle Skidmore. She's an active member of Austin's LGBTQ community who says her candidacy sends a message to conservative state leaders, but says she's been mostly content with the city's treatment of the queer community, and doesn't plan to make her identity a priority in her campaign.

Renteria's other challenger is James Vala­dez, a 30-year-old real estate broker who sits on the Travis Central Appraisal District's board of directors and the city's Board of Adjust­ment (he's Renteria's appointee), and in 2016 finished second in our Hot Sauce Festival contest. Valadez cites the first two roles and his "intimate relationship" with the city's land development code as being what makes him uniquely qualified for City Council. Though he wouldn't say whether or not he supports CodeNEXT, he does believe that after six years, "we should have more consensus." He also said the process has forced Austin to face a complicated question: "Who runs the city: developers or neighborhoods?" He said he expected Renteria to push for a "neighborhood-centric" policy during proceedings, but feels the CM's stance has changed since his 2014 election.

He agrees with the incumbent that affordable housing and displacement remain D3's biggest concerns. But the district needs to work toward "tactical growth," he said, and well-negotiated entitlements, such as more multibedroom housing units in exchange for developer incentives. "We need to be smart about how we're going to plan long term for affordability," he said. In his opinion, acquiring land needs to be the focus if the city wants to provide long-term income-restricted housing. "That's the variable that's going to increase in value at the highest rate." – Sarah Marloff

Bobby Levinski

District 8: 3 Liberals, 1 Incumbent

Rich DePalma

With Sheri Gallo and the caustic Don Zim­merman off the dais, D8's Ellen Trox­clair now stands as the lone conservative. Elected in a 2014 run-off over Ed Scruggs, the Southwest representative faces a threat from three candidates, all of them campaigning to her left. While the race is technically nonpartisan, Troxclair's unabashed Republican ties aren't fooling anyone. And the Texas Public Policy Foundation and ALEC-affiliated council member made it a mission to support the conservative Legislature's upending of ordinances democratically passed by her colleagues – from short-term rental regulations to ridesharing rules – irking colleagues along the way.

Paige Ellis

Bobby Levinski, the first challenger to announce, is an attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, and a former policy adviser to Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and former CM (and current mayoral candidate) Laura Mor­rison. Levinski hasn't been shy about criticizing Troxclair for her efforts to reverse city ordinances. "She views local government with a hostile lens," he says. With more than a decade of city and neighborhood experience, Levinski prides himself on his institutional knowledge. Running on a strong pro-environment platform, he considers the district, which houses Zilker Park and Barton Springs in its northeastern corner, the most "environmentally sensitive" of the 10. As a legal adviser to Community Not Commodity, the foremost group challenging CodeNEXT, Levinski is wary of including increased entitlements, especially to developers seeking to skirt environmental protections when building. If elected, he says he would get the ball rolling with recommendations from the Water Forward Task Force on how to use water resources more efficiently. When it comes to the budget, Levinski prioritizes social services and basic needs. He's already won the endorsement of former candidate Shane Sexton, who dropped out of the race earlier this year. "He's a good man with a servant's heart," Sexton has said of Levinski.

Rich DePalma's platform also prioritizes the environment. He's been the vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Board since 2015 and is a longtime advocate of local parks. DePalma stresses that Southwest Austin has seen ongoing desertion from city services, pointing to the area's one pool and one library as examples, and vows to fight for a "fair share of resources." District 8 "gets dismissed quite often," he says. "And contrary to the incumbent, not every voice here is scared of immigrants or wants a 'no' vote on spending. So many people in my neighborhood are still struggling." He plans to advocate for affordable housing, public safety, traffic congestion solutions, and "creative" infrastructure ideas.

Environmental marketing specialist Paige Ellis announced her candidacy earlier this month, making her the third candidate to pledge a focus on protecting natural resources. And she brings a wealth of community experience, having worked with Keep Austin Beautiful and the Barton Springs Conserv­ancy. Ellis describes Troxclair as her "complete opposite," and said she's disheartened perhaps most by the incumbent's opposition to the ridesharing rules and recently passed sick pay ordinance. "One of my strongest values is making sure we can all take care of each other, our health, and our families," she said. She was inspired to run by the Trump era's political climate, after being fed up with "insider politics," and wants to see more Cap Metro bus routes, increased density along transit corridors, and greater mass transportation options in general.

Three environmentally friendly progressive candidates beg the question of whether one can individually find a way to knock off the conservative incumbent. They believe they can. DePalma says he's supported by not just Republicans but also some Trump voters, and Levinski notes that Troxclair beat the left-leaning Scruggs by a mere 57 votes.

"The district isn't universally conservative," Levinski said. "There's a strong Our Revolu­tion presence here. And in the end, issues like neighborhoods, traffic, and overcrowded schools cross party lines." – Mary Tuma

Danielle Skidmore

District 9: A Complicated Puzzle

District 9 stretches through the center city from Oltorf to 51st Street, making it not only the geographic center of the city, but its cultural, economic, and political heart. Much of the business and entertainment that has come to define Austin sits within its parameters, and many of the city's longstanding problems center on it, too.

The district's incumbent is Kathie Tovo, the city's mayor pro tem, and the only coun­cil member to serve in that capacity prior to the body's transition to 10-1. Tovo is angling for her third term (following one at-large), meaning she must first overcome a rule within the City Charter that limits CMs to two. By securing a petition with 3,800 signatures before the filing deadline, Tovo can keep her place on the ballot. She's yet to reach that threshold, but said the campaign has gone "tremendously well."

Stints on two different neighborhood associations and the Planning Commission, in addition to her two terms on City Council, make Tovo a uniquely qualified candidate. She cited that experience as being invaluable to the city as it faces monumental challenges in the coming years, and cites continuing efforts to end homelessness across the city, especially in D9 where rates are highest, as a primary goal should she be re-elected.

A hallmark of Tovo's public service has been in finding compromises between preservation and growth within the city's central neighborhoods. She foresees the growing affordability issues in Austin requiring a concerted effort by City Council to increase the amount of housing built on publicly owned land. She pointed to several resolutions she introduced directing the city manager to research such projects, and said a top priority in her next term would be to "make sure we have as much housing, and as much affordable housing, as possible." Noting that nearly three-quarters of D9 constituents are renters (partially due to the University of Texas, housed within her district), Tovo said that shoring up protections for tenants' rights would be another critical component in maintaining affordability.

Hoping to unseat the incumbent is political novice and transportation wonk Danielle Skidmore, who believes it's time for the district to see new leadership. Skidmore is currently Tovo's appointee to the LGBTQ Quality of Life Com­mis­sion, and until March was an engineer at K. Friese + Associ­ates, where she oversaw transportation design. She spoke of her ability to bring an analytical perspective to growing the city's fledgling public transportation system. "We need to go big on transit," she said, by opening up the city to more people who have become isolated by urban sprawl. She said that would involve building on ProjectConnect, which aims to unite cities across Central Texas with high-capacity transit, and finding ways to reduce the reliance on car travel by city commuters.

Skidmore also pointed to affordability, and said the city needs to do a better job of creating affordable housing, especially with publicly owned land. She believes that growing housing density will be a necessity, but acknowledged that doing so while maintaining the character of the old Austin neighborhoods that constitute D9 is a "complicated puzzle." Still, she said, more people living near where they work and go to school has the benefit of being more environmentally sustainable and reducing the number of cars driving on highways.

If elected, Skidmore would make history as the first openly transgender person to be elected to public office in Texas (as could Jessica Coh­en, running in D3). During the 2017 legislative session, Skidmore fought Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's anti-trans bathroom bill, which she said invigorated her desire to make sure Austin remained a "beacon of change and progressive values." She said her personal experience as a transgender woman made her uniquely qualified to address community concerns, because it's given her a "real appreciation for stopping and listening" to people of all backgrounds. – Austin Sanders

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